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Title: The Islington Mystery
Author: Arthur Machen
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Language:  English
Date first posted: March 2007
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Title: The Islington Mystery
Author: Arthur Machen


The public taste in murders is often erratic, and sometimes, I think,
fallible enough. Take, for example, that Crippen business. It happened
seventeen years ago, and it is still freshly remembered and discussed
with interest. Yet it was by no means a murder of the first rank. What
was there in it? The outline is crude enough; simple, easy, and
disgusting, as Dr. Johnson observed of another work of art. Crippen was
cursed with a nagging wife of unpleasant habits; and he cherished a
passion for his typist. Whereupon he poisoned Mrs. Crippen, cut her up
and buried the pieces in the coal-cellar. This was well enough, though
elementary; and if the foolish little man had been content to lie quiet
and do nothing, he might have lived and died peaceably. But he must
needs disappear from his house--the action of a fool--and cross the
Atlantic with his typist absurdly and obviously disguised as a boy:
sheer, bungling imbecility. Here, surely, there is no single trace of
the master's hand; and yet, as I say, the Crippen Murder is reckoned
amongst the masterpieces. It is the same tale in all the arts: the low
comedian was always sure of a laugh if he cared to tumble over a pin;
and the weakest murderer is sure of a certain amount of respectful
attention if he will take the trouble to dismember his subject. And
then, with respect to Crippen: he was caught by means of the wireless
device, then in its early stages. This, of course, was utterly
irrelevant to the true issue; but the public wallows in irrelevance. A
great art critic may praise a great picture, and make his criticism a
masterpiece in itself. He will be unread; but let some asinine
paragraphist say that the painter always sings "Tom Bowling" as he sets
his palette, and dines on boiled fowl and apricot sauce three times a
week--then the world will proclaim the artist great.


The success of the second-rate is deplorable in itself; but it is more
deplorable in that it very often obscures the genuine masterpiece. If
the crowd runs after the false, it must neglect the true. The
intolerable _Romola_ is praised; the admirable _Cloister and the Hearth_
is waived aside. So, while the very indifferent and clumsy performance
of Crippen filled the papers, the extraordinary Battersea Murder was
served with a scanty paragraph or two in obscure corners of the Press.
Indeed, we were so shamefully starved of detail that I only retain a
bare outline of this superb crime in my memory; but, roughly, the affair
was shaped as follows: In the first floor of one of the smaller sets of
flats in Battersea a young fellow (? 18--20) was talking to an actress,
a "touring" actress of no particular fame, whose age, if I recollect,
was drawing on from thirty to forty. A shot, a near shot, broke in
suddenly on their talk. The young man dashed out of the flat, down the
stairs, and there, in the entry of the flats, found his own father, shot
dead. The father, it should be remarked, was a touring actor, and an old
friend of the lady upstairs. But here comes the magistral element in
this murder. Beside the dead man, or in the hand of the dead man, or in
a pocket of the dead man's coat--I am not sure how it was--there was
found a weapon made of heavy wire--a vile and most deadly contraption,
fashioned with curious and malignant ingenuity. It was night-time, but
the bright light of a moon ten days old was shining, and the young man
said he saw someone running and leaping over walls.

But mark the point: the dead actor was hiding beneath his friend's flat,
hiding and lying in wait, with his villainous weapon to his hand. He was
expecting an encounter with some enemy, on whom he was resolved to work
at least deadly mischief, if not murder.

Who was that enemy? Whose bullet was it that was swifter than the dead
man's savage and premeditated desire?

We shall probably never know. A murder that might have stood in the very
first rank, that might have vied with the affair of Madeleine
Smith--there were certain indications that made this seem possible--was
suffered to fade into obscurity, while the foolish crowd surged about
elementary Crippen and his bungling imbecilities. So there were once
people who considered _Robert Elsmere_ as a literary work of palmary


Naturally, and with some excuse, the war was responsible for a good deal
of this sort of neglect. In those appalling years there was but one
thing in men's heads; all else was blotted out. So, little attention was
paid to the affair of the woman's body, carefully wrapped in sacking,
which was found in Regent's Square, by the Gray's Inn Road. A man was
hanged without phrases, but there were one or two curious points in the

Then, again, there was the Wimbledon Murder, a singular business. A
well-to-do family had just moved into a big house facing the Common, so
recently that many of its goods and chattels were still in the
packing-cases. The master of the house was murdered one night by a man
who made off with his booty. It was a curious haul, consisting of a
mackintosh worth, perhaps, a couple of pounds, and a watch which would
have been dear at ten shillings. This murderer, too, was hanged without
comment; and yet, on the face of it, his conduct seems in need of
explanation. But the most singular case of all those that suffered from
the preoccupations of the war was, there is no doubt, the Islington
Mystery, as the Press called it. It was a striking headline, but the
world was too busy to attend. The affair got abroad, so far as it did
get abroad, about the time of the first employment of the tanks; and
people were trying not to see through the war correspondents, not to
perceive that the inky fandangoes and corroborees of these gentlemen hid
a sense of failure and disappointment.


But as to the Islington Mystery--this is how it fell out. There is an
odd street, not far from the region which was once called Spa Fields,
not far from the Pentonville or Islington Fields, where Grimaldi the
clown was once accused of inciting the mob to chase an overdriven ox. It
goes up a steep hill, and the rare adventurer who pierces now and then
into this unknown quarter of London is amazed and bewildered at the very
outset, since there are no steep hills in the London of his knowledge,
and the contours of the scene remind him of the cheap lodging-house area
at the back of hilly seaside resorts. But if the site is strange, the
buildings on it are far stranger. They were no doubt set up at the high
tide of Sir Walter Scott Gothic, which has left such queer memorials
behind it. The houses of Lloyd Street are in couples, and the architect,
combining the two into one design, desired to create an illusion of a
succession of churches, in the Perpendicular or Third Pointed manner,
climbing up the hill. The detail is rich, there are finials to rejoice
the heart, and gargoyles of fine fantasy, all carried out in the purest
stucco. At the lowest house on the right-hand side lived Mr. Harold
Boale and his wife, and a brass plate on the Gothic door said,
"Taxidermist: Skeletons Articulated". As it chanced, this lowest house
of Lloyd Street has a longer garden than its fellows, giving on a
contractor's yard, and at the end of the garden Mr. Boale had set up the
apparatus of his craft in an outhouse, away from the noses of his

So far as can be gathered, the stuffer and articulator was a harmless
and inoffensive little fellow. His neighbours liked him, and he and the
Boule cabinet-maker from next door, the Shell box-maker over the way,
the seal-engraver and the armourer from Baker Square at the top of the
hill, and the old mercantile marine skipper who lived round the corner
in Marchmont Street, at the house with the ivory junk in the window,
used to spend many a genial evening together in the parlour of the Quill
in the days before everything was spoilt by the war.

They did not drink very much or talk very much, any of them; but they
enjoyed their moderate cups and the snug comfort of the place, and
stared solemnly at the old coaching prints that were upon the walls, and
at the large glass painting depicting the landing of England's Injured
Queen, which hung over the mantelpiece, between two Pink Dogs with gold
collars. Mr. Boale passed as a very nice sort of man in this circle and
everybody was sorry for him. Mrs. Boale was a tartar and a scold. The
men of the quarter kept out of her way; the women were afraid of her.
She led poor Boale the devil's own life. Her voice, often enough, would
be heard at the Quill door, vomiting venom at her husband's address; and
he, poor man, would tremble and go forth, lest some worse thing might
happen. Mrs. Boale was a short dark woman. Her hair was coal-black, her
face wore an expression of acid malignity, and she walked quickly but
with a decided limp. She was full of energy and the pest of the
neighbourhood, and more than a pest to her husband.

The war, with its scarcity and its severe closing-hours, made the
meetings at the Quill rarer than before, and deprived them of a good
deal of their old comfort. Still, the circle was not wholly broken up,
and one evening Boale announced that his wife had gone to visit
relations in Lancashire, and would most likely be away for a
considerable time.

"Well, there's nothing like a change of air, so they say," said the
skipper, "though I've had more than enough of it myself."

The others said nothing, but congratulated Boale in their hearts. One of
them remarked afterwards that the only change that would do Mrs. Boale
good was a change to Kingdom Come, and they all agreed. They were not
aware that Mrs. Boale was enjoying the advantages of the recommended


As I recollect, Mr. Boale's worries began with the appearance of Mrs.
Boale's sister, Mary Aspinall, a woman almost as ill-tempered and
malignant as Mrs. Boale herself. She had been for some years nurse with
a family in Capetown, and had come home with her mistress. In the first
place, the woman had written two or three letters to her sister, and
there had been no reply. This struck her as odd, for Mrs. Boale had been
a very good correspondent, filling her letters with "nasty things" about
her husband. So, on her first afternoon off after her return, Mary
Aspinall called at the house in Lloyd Street to get the truth of the
matter from her sister's own lips. She strongly suspected Boale of
having suppressed her letters. "The dirty little tyke; I'll serve him,"
she said to herself. So came Miss Aspinall to Lloyd Street and brought
out Boale from his workshop. And when he saw her his heart sank. He had
read her letters. But the decision to return to England had been taken
suddenly; Miss Aspinall had, therefore, said not a word about it. Boale
had thought of his wife's sister as established at the other end of the
world for the next ten, twenty years, perhaps; and he meant to go away
and lose himself under a new name in a year or two. And so, when he saw
the woman, his heart sank.

Mary Aspinall went straight to the point.

"Where's Elizabeth?" she asked. "Upstairs? I wonder she didn't come down
when she heard the bell."

"No," said Boale. He comforted himself with the thought of the curious
labyrinth he had drawn about his secret; he felt secure in the centre of

"No, she's not upstairs. She's not in the house."

"Oh, indeed. Not in the house. Gone to see some friends, I suppose. When
do you expect her back?"

"The truth is, Mary, that I don't expect her back. She's left me--three
months ago, it is."

"You mean to tell me that! Left you! Showed her sense, I think. Where
has she gone?"

"Upon my word, Mary, I don't know. We had a bit of a to-do one evening,
though I don't think I said much. But she said she'd had enough, and she
packed a few things in a bag, and off she went. I ran after her and
called to her to come back, but she wouldn't so much as turn her head,
and went off King's Cross way. And from that day to this I've never seen
her, nor had a word from her. I've had to send all her letters back to
the post office."

Mary Aspinall stared hard at her brother-in-law and pondered. Beyond
telling him that he had brought it on himself, there seemed nothing to
say. So she dealt with Boale on those lines very thoroughly, and made an
indignant exit from the parlour. He went back to stuff peacocks, for all
I know. He was feeling comfortable again. There had been a very
unpleasant sensation in the stomach for a few seconds--a very horrible
fear at the moment that one of the outer walls of that labyrinth of his
had been breached; but now all was well again.

And all might have been permanently well if Miss Aspinall had not
happened to meet Mrs. Horridge in the main road, close to the bottom of
Lloyd Street. Mrs. Horridge was the wife of the Shell box-maker, and the
two had met once or twice long ago at Mrs. Boale's tea-table. They
recognized each other, and, after a few unmeaning remarks, Mrs. Horridge
asked Miss Aspinall if she had seen her sister since her return to

"How could I see her when I don't know where she is?" asked Miss
Aspinall with some ferocity.

"Dear me, you haven't seen Mr. Boale, then?"

"I've just come from him this minute."

"But he can't have lost the Lancashire address, surely?"

And so one thing led to another, and Mary Aspinall gathered quite
clearly that Boale had told his friends that his wife was paying a long
visit to relations in Lancashire. In the first place the Aspinalls had
no relations in Lancashire--they came from Suffolk--and secondly Boale
had informed her that Elizabeth had gone away in a rage, he knew not
where. She did not pay him another visit then and there, as she had at
first intended. It was growing late, and she took her considerations
back with her to Wimbledon, determined on thinking the matter out.

Next week she called again at Lloyd Street. She charged Boale with
deliberate lying, placing frankly before him the two tales he had told.
Again that horrid sinking sensation lay heavy upon Boale. But he had

"Indeed," he said, "I've told you no lies, Mary. It all happened just as
I said before. But I did make up that tale about Lancashire for the
people about here. I didn't like them to have my troubles to talk over,
especially as Elizabeth is bound to come back some time, and I hope it
will be soon."

Miss Aspinall stared at the little man in a doubtful, threatening
fashion for a moment, and then hurried upstairs. She came down soon

"I've gone through Elizabeth's drawers," she said with defiance.
"There's a good many things missing. I don't see those bits of lace she
had from Granny, and the set of jet is gone, and so is the garnet
necklace, and the coral brooch. I couldn't find the ivory fan, either."

"I found all the drawers wide open after she'd gone," sighed Mr. Boale.
"I supposed she'd taken the things away with her."

It must be confessed that Mr. Boale, taught, perhaps, by the nicety of
his craft, had paid every attention to detail. He had realized that it
would be vain to tell a tale of his wife going away and leaving her
treasures behind her. And so the treasures had disappeared.

Really, the Aspinall vixen did not know what to say. She had to confess
that Boale had explained the difficulty of his two stories quite
plausibly. So she informed him that he was more like a worm than a man,
and banged the hall door. Again Boale went back to his workshop with a
warmth about his heart. His labyrinth was still secure, its secret safe.
At first, when confronted again by the accusing Aspinall, he had thought
of bolting the moment he got the woman out of the house; but that was
unreasoning panic. He was in no danger. And he remembered, like the rest
of us, the Crippen case. It was running away that had brought Crippen to
ruin; if he had sat tight he would have sat secure, and the secret of
the cellar would never have been known. Though, as Mr. Boale reflected,
anybody was welcome to search his cellar, to search here and there and
anywhere on his premises, from the hall door in front to the workshop at
the back. And he proceeded to give his calm, whole-souled attention to a
fine raven that had been sent round in the morning.

Miss Aspinall took the extraordinary disappearance of her sister back
with her to Wimbledon and thought it over. She thought it over again and
again, and she could make nothing of it. She did not know that people
are constantly disappearing for all sorts of reasons; that nobody hears
anything about such cases unless some enterprising paper sees matter for
a "stunt", and rouses all England to hunt for John Jones or Mrs.
Carraway. To Miss Aspinall, the vanishing of Elizabeth Boale seemed a
portent and a wonder, a unique and terrible event; and she puzzled her
head over it, and still could find no exit from her labyrinth--a
different structure from the labyrinth maintained by the serene Boale.
The Aspinall had no suspicions of her brother-in-law; both his manner
and his matter were straightforward, clear, and square. He was a worm,
as she had informed him, but he was certainly telling the truth. But the
woman was fond of her sister, and wanted to know where she had gone and
what had happened to her; and so she put the matter into the hands of
the police.


She furnished the best description that she could of the missing woman,
but the officer in charge of the case pointed out that she had not seen
her sister for many years, and that Mrs Boale was obviously the person
to be consulted in the matter. So the taxidermist was again drawn from
his scientific labours. He was shown the information laid by Miss
Aspinall and the description furnished by her. He told his simple story
once more, mentioning the incident of his lying to his neighbours to
avoid unpleasant gossip, and added several details to Miss Aspinall's
picture of his wife. He then furnished the constable with two
photographs, pointed out the better likeness of the two, and saw his
visitor off the premises with cheerful calm.

In due course, the "Missing" bill, garnished with a reproduction of the
photograph selected by Mr. Boale, with minute descriptive details,
including the "marked limp", was posted up at the police-stations all
over the country, and glanced at casually by a few passers-by here and
there. There was nothing sensational about the placard; and the
statement "Last seen going in the direction of King's Cross" was not a
very promising clue for the amateur detective. No hint of the matter got
into the Press; as I have pointed out, hardly one per cent of these
cases of "missing" does get into the Press. And just then we were all
occupied in reading the pans of the war correspondents, who were
proving that an advance of a mile and a half on a nine-mile front
constituted a victory which threw Waterloo into the shade. There was no
room for discussing the whereabouts of an obscure woman whom Islington
knew no more.

It was sheer accident that brought about the catastrophe. James Curry, a
medical student who had rooms in Percy Street, Tottenham Court Road, was
prowling about his quarter one afternoon in an indefinite and idle
manner, gazing at shop windows and mooning at street corners. He knew
that he would never want a cash register, but he inspected the stock
with the closest attention, and chose a fine specimen listed at 75.
Again, he invested heavily in costly Oriental rugs, and furnished a town
mansion in the Sheraton manner at very considerable expense. And so his
tour of inspection brought him to the police-station; and there he
proceeded to read the bills posted outside, including the bill relating
to Elizabeth Boale.

"Walks with a marked limp."

James Curry felt his breath go out of his body in a swift gasp. He put
out a hand towards the railing to steady himself as he read that amazing
sentence over again. And then he walked straight into the

The fact was that he had bought from Harold Boale, three weeks after the
date on which Elizabeth Boale was last seen, a female skeleton. He had
got it comparatively cheaply because of the malformation of one of the
thigh-bones. And now it struck him that the late owner of that
thigh-bone must have walked with a very marked limp.


M'Aulay made his reputation at the trial. He defended Harold Boale with
magnificent audacity. I was in court--it was a considerable part of my
business in those days to frequent the Old Bailey--and I shall never
forget the opening phrases of his speech for the prisoner. He rose
slowly, and let his glance go slowly round the court. His eyes rested at
last with grave solemnity on the jury. At length he spoke, in a low,
clear, deliberate voice, weighing, as it seemed, every word he uttered.

"Gentlemen," he began, "a very great man, and a very wise man, and a
very good man once said that probability is the guide of life. I think
you will agree with me that this is a weighty utterance. When we once
leave the domain of pure mathematics, there is very little that is
certain. Supposing we have money to invest: we weigh the pros and cons
of this scheme and that, and decide at last on probable grounds. Or it
may be our lot to have to make an appointment; we have to choose a man
to fill a responsible position in which both honesty and sagacity are of
the first consequence. Again probability must guide us to a decision. No
one man can form a certain and infallible judgment of another. And so
through all the affairs of life: we must be content with probability,
and again and again with probability. Bishop Butler was right.

"But every rule has its exception. The rule which we have just laid down
has its exception. That exception confronts you terribly, tremendously,
at this very moment. You may think--I do not say that you do think--but
you may think that Harold Boale, the prisoner at the bar, in all
probability murdered his wife, Elizabeth Boale."

There was a long pause at this point. Then:

"If you think that, then it is your imperative duty to acquit the
prisoner at the bar. The only verdict which you dare give is a verdict
of 'Not Guilty'."

Up to this, moment, Counsel had maintained the low, deliberate utterance
with which he had begun his speech, pausing now and again and seeming to
consider within himself the precise value of every word that came to his
lips. Suddenly his voice rang out, resonant, piercing. One word followed
swiftly on another:

"This, remember, is not a court of probability. Bishop Butler's maxim
does not apply here. Here there is no place for probability. This is a
court of certainty. And unless you are certain that my client is guilty,
unless you are as certain of his guilt as you are certain that two and
two make four, then you must acquit him.

"Again, and yet again--this is a court of certainty. In the ordinary
affairs of life, as we have seen, we are guided by probability. We
sometimes makes mistakes; in most cases these mistakes may be rectified.
A disastrous investment may be counterbalanced by a prosperous
investment; a bad servant may be replaced by a good one. But in this
place, where life and death hang in the balances which are in your
hands, there is no room for mistakes, since here mistakes are
irreparable. You cannot bring a dead man back to life. You must not say,
'This man is probably a murderer, and therefore he is guilty.' Before
you bring in such a verdict, you must be able to say, 'This man is
certainly a murderer.' And that you cannot say, and I will tell you

M'Aulay then took the evidence piece by piece. Scientific witnesses had
declared that the malformation of the thighbone in the skeleton
exhibited would produce exactly the sort of limp which had characterized
Elizabeth Boale. Counsel for the defence had worried the doctors, had
made them admit that such a malformation was by no means unique. It was
uncommon. Yes, but not very uncommon? Perhaps not.

Finally, one doctor admitted that in the course of thirty years of
hospital and private practice he had known of five such cases of
malformation of the thigh-bone. M'Aulay gave an inaudible sigh of
relief; he felt that he had got his verdict.

He made all this quite clear to the jury. He dwelt on the principle that
no one can be condemned unless the _corpus delicti_, the body, or some
identifiable portion of the body of the murdered person can be produced.
He told them the story of the Campden Wonder; how the "murdered" man
walked into his village two years after three people had been hanged for
murdering him. "Gentlemen," he said, "for all I know, and for all you
know, Elizabeth Boale may walk into this court at any moment. I say
boldly that we have no earthly right to assume that she is dead."

Of course Boale's defence was a very simple one. The skeleton which he
sold to Mr. Curry had been gradually assembled by him in the course of
the last three years. He pointed out that the two hands were not a very
good match; and, indeed, this was a little detail that he had not

The jury took half an hour to consider their verdict. Harold Boale was
found "Not Guilty".

He was seen by an old friend a couple of years ago. He had emigrated to
America, and was doing prosperously in his old craft in a big town of
the Middle West. He had married a pleasant girl of Swedish extraction.

"You see," he explained, "the lawyers told me I should be safe in
presuming poor Elizabeth's death."

He smiled amiably.

And finally, I beg to state that this account of mine is a grossly
partial narrative. For all I know, assuming for a moment the severe
standards of M'Aulay, Boale was an innocent man. It is possible that his
story was a true one. Elizabeth Boale may, after all, be living; she may
return after the fashion of the "murdered" man in the Campden Wonder.
All the thoughts, devices, meditations that I have put into the heart
and mind of Boale may be my own malignant inventions without the shadow
of true substance behind them.

In theory, then, the Islington Mystery is an open question. Certainly;
but in fact?


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